Six-thirty loomed fast like an unexpected shadow. It watched Javier with the gaze of a cat: dispassionate in the face of dry-food and luminously yellow on the dashboard of the car. He had put all his friends and Corinna on mute after several rounds of hope-and-rapid-disappointment every time his phone lit up.
Javier had been sitting in his car for half an hour. It was now almost six-forty.
“Chill out,” he muttered, “probably just busy, saving lives and stuff. Much more important than you.”
He stared at his phone. The screen was open to the last text message that Vegas had sent him that morning. It read: U still good for 6.30pm? Wait outside L19 main entrance not the A&E one. To which Javier had replied: I’ll be there. Vegas responded with three crying-laughter emojis. Javier ignored them and checked his hair in the rear view mirror, pinching the collar of his shirt with a critical eye. He felt a lot better than he had this morning; wearing his watch and cufflinks–a rose gold to match the buttons on his jacket.
Javier fiddled with them.
He glanced outside.
After a moment, he turned the suppressor in his watch off.
Javier had turned it on only ten minutes ago, but his nerves were getting the better of him. He always felt a bit blind if he couldn’t sense someone’s emotions, and he and Ethan were already starting off on the wrong foot…the idea of going through an entire dinner with five senses instead of six made Javier a little queasy.
He glanced at the clock.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t have plenty of experience wining and dining strangers: between the ballet sponsors, charity galas and business cocktails, Javier’s control over his Aptitude was muscle memory now–with or without his suppressors.
But contrary to popular belief, most empaths could only be affected by others, a one way street that didn’t stop people accusing empaths of being manipulative mind-readers. Empathic projection or influence usually required a lot more effort. If projection came easily, as it did for Javier, it also meant it was that much harder to block out others’ emotions. He almost never left the house without suppressors, though wearing them all day came with its own lovely side effects: namely, migraines.
At least the painkillers were finally kicking in.
He didn’t want to come off as desperate by texting Vegas. Maybe music would help. Jav placed his phone in its holder, flicking the volume up–and promptly had a heart-attack when the text alert-chime went off through the surround sound speakers.
“Holy hell,” he yelped, knocking his phone into the footwell with a wince-worthy thwack, “shit….”
He fished for the phone with both feet and one hand, fumbling it in his excitement. Maybe finally…? It was a text from an unknown number:
Sorry running late! Out in 5, are we still on?
A second chime.
This is Ethan by the way.
“Yes!” Javier shouted to absolutely no one.
He allowed himself three seconds of excited vibrating, then took a deep breath to compose himself. Carefully, he texted back:
No worries, I’m out front :)
The reply was instant:
His relief was probably disproportionate, but Javier was fizzy with anticipation. He saved Ethan’s number into his contacts, checked his hair one last time in the mirror and got out of the car.
London’s evening air was wet with chill; settling on skin and clothes with the persistent aspiration of snow.
Leaving the car parked in the drop-off zone, Javier took the steps up towards the four set of glass doors that lined the front of the main lobby. People glanced at him as they passed in clouds of stress and anxiety, and Javier stuffed his hands into his pockets. Maybe he should turn the suppressor in his watch back on, after all…
Javier felt a pleasant flare of recognition and turned just as someone tapped him on the shoulder.
It was Ethan, hand in his hair and an apologetic smile on his face. Javier’s stomach made a bid for his rib cage.
“Hey. Sorry I’m late,” Ethan said, “you haven’t been standing here long, have you?”
“Oh no, not at all,” said Javier, beaming, “perfect timing.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows, and made a show of looking at his phone.
“You were running late too?”
“No I…” Javier coughed, “I was waiting in the car,” he admitted.
Ethan’s smile widened, creasing the edge of his eyes. They were grey, as pale as the glass behind him.
“So a while, then. I’m sorry, handover got delayed… I should have messaged you earlier.”
“No problem,” said Javier quickly, “I expect it’s always–I mean, your time must be in high demand…”
“Ha, admin waits for no-one.”
Ethan was wearing a white shirt and blazer over dark jeans; a shapeless coat thrown over his shoulders, one arm in and one arm out. He had on pragmatic ankle boots that disappeared into the long silhouette of his legs. The few steps between them left him a full head taller.
Javier flicked his eyes back up to Ethan’s face; guilty.
“You look nice,” said Ethan, tilting his head.
“Thanks. You look—”
Ethan raised an eyebrow, and Javier flushed. Ethan plucked at his loose sleeve, shaking it like a puppet’s arm.
“This is basically a sleeping bag,” he said, “but good to know.”
He looked tired about the eyes, but no less cute for it. Ethan had one of those smiles that did not sit generously on the mouth, though it was offset by the charcoal sweep of his eyelashes and a gaze as dry as Giulia’s favourite vermouth. His unruffled presence was a balm that outlined his features in flattering shadow, and only made the slope of his neck and shoulders all the more attractive.
Javier wondered if all doctors had such anchor-steady emotions by training, or whether it was just healers.
He was feeling two parts overdressed, ten parts smitten…and realised, with a frisson of panic, that the silence had gone on just a tad too long. He half turned towards the street.
“There’s no dress code anyway,” he said, clumsily, “so you’re more than fine.”
Ethan followed him down the hospital steps.
“Where are we off to?”
“Takumi by Ito,” said Javier, reaching for the car keys. The lights flashed as they neared, doors unlocking. “It’s Edo style sushi. I hope that’s okay?”
But Ethan wasn’t paying attention. He was staring at the car, genuine surprise bright like a splash of paint on the concrete. He turned to Javier, eyes big.
“Is this a vintage sixteen cylinder flier?” he demanded, palm hovering over the hood of the Bugatti, “or is it just the shell?”
Javier had run through possible evening conversation topics for the better part of two hours, but car-talk had not come up. He’d picked this car because it was (a) less flashy than Corinna’s, (b) complemented his suit, and (c) the bikes and single-fliers would have been too forward.
“Uh,” he said, “I think it’s the original guts too?”
He lifted the door for Ethan, who stared at the car’s matte smooth exterior for a beat longer before getting in. Javier went around and got in the driver’s side–not that it really mattered. He almost always used the driverless pre-sets; especially in the middle of London, where there was really no need to do anything manually. Between the claustrophobic veins that comprised the London Metropolitan Grid, the only times they flew manually were when Stephen wanted an adrenaline rush and took them both joy riding. Right now, however, Javier was deeply regretting not taking Stephen up on those driving lessons: he hadn’t banked on Ethan being an automobile enthusiast of all things.
“This is a beautiful car,” he was saying, “I’ve only ever seen photos. Oh it does have a joystick! Awesome…”
Javier had already pre-entered the restaurant’s address into the navigation software so the car purred to life without prompting, a soothing throaty vibration that took them out of the hospital parking bay and back into the thoroughfare.
Ethan was running the pad of his fingers over the edge of the dashboard, then at the seatbelts on either side of his shoulders. He turned in his seat , rummaging for something, before pulling out the end-buckle of another strap.
“It still has the proper racing harnesses,” said Ethan, delighted, “I love how they used to make these as if we’d all be doing flips and dives in them…do you ever fly it outside of the city boundaries?”
Javier cleared his throat.
Ethan strapped himself in, and leaned his elbow on the armrest between them. He was very close, curiosity a sharp-sweet lime at the back of the tongue. Oh, thought Javier, Ethan was one of those; the kind of person whose attention was palpable when turned upon you.
“Only sometimes? Do you get motion sick?”
“Not exactly,” said Javier, unwilling to admit that the only time Stephen had done full bodied flips in his car, Javier had had to lie down for half an hour afterwards. Not when Ethan looked so bright eyed at the very thought.
Ethan slid down low into his seat, stretching his legs into the backlit footwell with an indecent groan.
“Oh my god this feels so comfy–memory foam?”
Javier clutched the steering wheel desperately for composure. He cleared his throat, and prayed his voice didn’t squeak.
“I think so? It can recline further, actually. Um.”
“That’s unusual for a racing model like this. Practical though, I guess.”
He was more used to the gliding slide of apathy, the light touch of polite feigned interest and utter boredom. He wasn’t sure how to feel about Ethan being so enthused by Javier’s car rather than his company, but they were only ten minutes into the evening. There was hope yet.
“Have you had it long?” asked Ethan, “like, is it all new boring software, or does it still have the good stuff?”
“The good stuff?” repeated Javier.
Ethan’s expression turned sly, eyes like coins half hidden in a magician’s hand. It made Jav’s palms break out in a sweat.
“Well, you know,” Ethan said, leaning even further into his seat, “all that software written in the eighties, before the new safety laws came in. I can see the wings and stabilisers…this baby was built for free falls.”
Javier, laughed, and it came out a little louder than was attractive.
“Free falls!” he said.
Ethan blinked at him.
“Is there an echo in here?”
“Sorry,” said Javier, “I’m actually not sure about the…specs. It was a birthday present.”
“Damn,” said Ethan, shrugging off his jacket and folding it in his lap. His profile was lit up purple and green with the passing neon as car took the express flight-path up three levels. He glanced at Javier out of the corner of his eye, still smiling.
“I’ve never gone diving in a Bugatti before…”
“I could check,” Javier said quickly, “check if it’s possible, I mean. Then you could take her diving, next time. Once we know it’s safe.”
Ethan turned to face him.
“Next time huh?” he said, “I suppose I walked myself into that one. Wait, you’d let me fly?”
“I don’t have a driver’s licence,” said Ethan, “let alone a flying permit.”
Javier blinked at him.
“…I mean, do you know how to?”
“Not really,” said Ethan cheerfully.
“You were totally going to let me fly it with or without a licence, weren’t you?” said Ethan, smile widening.
His amusement was warm, like a too-large gulp of whiskey. Javier wanted to switch off both cufflinks. He searched Ethan’s expression for traps, but got distracted by the bow of his mouth instead.
“Naughty. I could get us both killed.”
“There are fail-safes,” said Javier weakly. His face felt very hot, “and you’re a Healer.”
“Seriously? If we fall in this we’re not gonna–Healers aren’t bloody necromancers, no matter what movies will tell you.”
“To be honest,” said Javier, “I don’t know how to free-dive either. So if you really want to go…joy riding, I’d have to get my friend to fly you.”
“They’re good, are they?”
“He’s alright, I suppose.”
A rapid montage of Stephen tearing through the gaps in between buildings playing behind Javier’s eyelids. The accompanying adrenaline rush was always fantastic, which was why Javier generally went along for the ride, both around London and to the police station afterwards.
“He single?” asked Ethan.
Javier made an exaggerated frowny face, and Ethan laughed.
“He’s actually engaged. Getting married next July.”
“Huh. Congrats I guess?”
“He’s also straight.”
“Oh. My condolences,” said Ethan.
© Frances Wren 2020, all rights reserved.
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